Sunday, December 24, 2006
by John Donne
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,
Now leaves His well-belov'd imprisonment,
There He hath made Himself to His intent
Weak enough, now into the world to come;
But O, for thee, for Him, hath the inn no room?
Yet lay Him in this stall, and from the Orient,
Stars and wise men will travel to prevent
The effect of Herod's jealous general doom.
Seest thou, my soul, with thy faith's eyes, how He
Which fills all place, yet none holds Him, doth lie?
Was not His pity towards thee wondrous high,
That would have need to be pitied by thee?
Kiss Him, and with Him into Egypt go,
With His kind mother, who partakes thy woe.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Awake--again the Gospel-trump is blown --
From year to year it swells with louder tone,
From year to year the signs of wrath
Are gathering round the Judge's path,
Strange words fulfilled, and mighty works achieved,
And truth in all the world both hated and believed.
Awake! why linger in the gorgeous town,
Sworn liegemen of the Cross and thorny crown?
Up from your beds of sloth for shame,
Speed to the eastern mount like flame,
Nor wonder, should ye find your King in tears,
E'en with the loud Hosanna ringing in His ears.
Alas! no need to rouse them: long ago
They are gone forth to swell Messiah's show:
With glittering robes and garlands sweet
They strew the ground beneath His feet:
All but your hearts are there--O doomed to prove
The arrows winged in Heaven for Faith that will not love!
Meanwhile He passes through th' adoring crowd,
Calm as the march of some majestic cloud,
That o'er wild scenes of ocean-war
Holds its still course in Heaven afar:
E'en so, heart-searching Lord, as years roll on,
Thou keepest silent watch from Thy triumphal throne:
E'en so, the world is thronging round to gaze
On the dread vision of the latter days,
Constrained to own Thee, but in heart
Prepared to take Barabbas' part:
"Hosanna" now, to-morrow "Crucify,"
The changeful burden still of their rude lawless cry.
Yet in that throng of selfish hearts untrue
Thy sad eye rests upon Thy faithful few,
Children and childlike souls are there,
Blind Bartimeus' humble prayer,
And Lazarus wakened from his four days' sleep,
Enduring life again, that Passover to keep.
And fast beside the olive-bordered way
Stands the blessed home where Jesus deigned to stay,
The peaceful home, to Zeal sincere
And heavenly Contemplation dear,
Where Martha loved to wait with reverence meet,
And wiser Mary lingered at Thy sacred feet.
Still through decaying ages as they glide,
Thou lov'st Thy chosen remnant to divide;
Sprinkled along the waste of years
Full many a soft green isle appears:
Pause where we may upon the desert road,
Some shelter is in sight, some sacred safe abode.
When withering blasts of error swept the sky,
And Love's last flower seemed fain to droop and die,
How sweet, how lone the ray benign
On sheltered nooks of Palestine!
Then to his early home did Love repair,
And cheered his sickening heart with his own native air.
Years roll away: again the tide of crime
Has swept Thy footsteps from the favoured clime
Where shall the holy Cross find rest?
On a crowned monarch's mailed breast:
Like some bright angel o'er the darkling scene,
Through court and camp he holds his heavenward course serene.
A fouler vision yet; an age of light,
Light without love, glares on the aching sight:
Oh, who can tell how calm and sweet,
Meek Walton, shows thy green retreat,
When wearied with the tale thy times disclose,
The eye first finds thee out in thy secure repose?
Thus bad and good their several warnings give
Of His approach, whom none may see and live:
Faith's ear, with awful still delight,
Counts them like minute-bells at night.
Keeping the heart awake till dawn of morn,
While to her funeral pile this aged world is borne.
But what are Heaven's alarms to hearts that cower
In wilful slumber, deepening every hour,
That draw their curtains closer round,
The nearer swells the trumpet's sound?
Lord, ere our trembling lamps sink down and die,
Touch us with chastening hand, and make us feel Thee nigh.
-- John Keble (1792-1866)
Monday, December 18, 2006
|Yesterday's Gospel reading promised the coming of the Lord with "winnowing fork" in his hand. To my eye, Jesus did not repudiate that picture -- although he complicated it some. And that raises my perennial Advent question: When the Lord returns, what will he be looking for, what will he expect, what will he do?|
Lutherans of a classic stripe seem content with their answer: If you simply allow Jesus to love you, it doesn't matter what you've done, who you are, why you have lived the way you have. As long as you don't put up a big "no" to him, he will usher you into his Father's kingdom.
I, of course, as a Lutheran, don't have total problem with that formulation. But I'm waiting for those "classic-stripe" Lutherans to deal with the Baptizer, the Sermon on the Mount, and all the rest.
I have recently discovered Paul Althaus' classic (I think) little monograph (in the old "Facets" seiers published by Fortress Press), Divine Command. I have happily learned that my view of the on-going validity of the Ten Commandments and of the commands of Jesus toward love of neighbor, justice in the marketplace, and the like has bona fide Lutheran bona fides.
I intend to set out some thoughts on Althaus' thesis in the near future, so for today, I'll simply make a comment and offer a quote. Lutheran talk about "justifiation by grace through faith" refers to "achieving salvation" -- i.e., it addresses what needs to be done to overcome the rift between being human and being acceptable to God. The Lutheran answer, consonant with the whole of Holy Scripture and most of the Great Tradition, is "nothing; God has taken the initiative to love us even in our most profound unlovablility."
Lutherans, unfortunately (and of course, not ALL Lutherans), stop there. All that matters, apparently, is day by day reassuring myself of my personal salvation by repeating the mantra, "I am saved by God's gracious loving act." The question which ought to occupy preachers, teachers, parents, and us is never addressed -- viz., "So what?" or "What are we to do with this?" or "Where do we go from here?" Those are questions of "sanctification" or "growth in grace" or "theosis" (I suppose). And the stereotypical Lutheran response is "Well, it pretty much doesn't matter, because your works don't matter."
That is an inappropriate response to questions of how to live if those questions do not rise out of questions about earning/meriting/keeping God's love, as Althaus makes clear (and as I shall try to explain later) and as this citation from St. Symeon the Theologian (thanks to Pontificator for the reference) also makes clear:
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
|To continue a theme:|
The Theotokos has been revealed on the earth in truth,
-- from the Orthodox liturgy, in Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984)
Monday, December 11, 2006
Today, I offer this from my favorite Christian poet, the deacon Ephrem of Syria (fourth century). Not only does he get so much right and beautiful, but he testifies to the earliness of the devotion paid to Mary, thereby demonstrating that while various Mary-cults may be a more recent development in Church history -- see Jaroslav Pelikan's book, Mary Through the Centuries -- the propriety of honoring her and even praying to her is not.
“O Immaculate and wholly-pure Virgin Mary”
O Immaculate and wholly-pure Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of the world, hope of those who are in despair; thou art the joy of the Saints; thou art the peacemaker between sinners and God; thou art the advocate of the abandoned, the secure haven of those who are on the sea of the world; thou art the consolation of the world, the ransom of slaves, the comfortress of the afflicted, the salvation of the universe. O great Queen, we take refuge in thy protection: ‘We have no confidence but in thee, O most faithful Virgin.’ After God thou art all our hope. We bear the name of thy servants; allow not the enemy to drag us to Hell. I salute thee, O great Mediatress of peace between men and God, Mother of Jesus our Lord, who is the love of all men and of God, to whom be honor and benediction with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
St Ephrem the Syrian
It is part of Advent's "retting up" to honor His Mother as an aspect of awaiting The Lord's return. (Read the prayer carefully, and you may discover some of the sources of discomfort that force me to re-examine much that I take for granted about the Virgin, too.)
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Key to Advent reflection ought to be the Virgin Mary and her wonderful song, what we call "Magnificat." If I were able to link music to this site (no, Sister Kate, if I were able to set music into this site), it would be versions of Mary's song.
Well, then, imagine my delight to see posted to the Christianity Today webmail page the reflection on the BVM -- the Blessed Valorous Mary -- by an evangelical who teaches at a quite conservative evangelical college. And then imagine my delight to discover that it's a high-quality, reverent, devotional reflection.
So at the risk of violating the Fair Use doctrine of the copyright act, I provide this re-print, rather than just a link, to this fine article by Scot McKnight, which I commend to you along with my wishes for a peaceful, inspiring, reverential, and radical Advent. (At the end of the piece is a link to the original.
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The Mary We Never Knew:
Why the mother of Jesus was more revolutionary than we've been led to believe.
There are two Marys. One wears a Carolina blue robe, exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us. This is the familiar Blessed Virgin Mary, and she leads us to a Christmas celebration of quiet reflection.
Another Mary—the Blessed Valorous Mary—wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, follows her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and then finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross—not just as a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleeves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not.
Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan's brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.
But there are signs that those days are coming to an end. On the horizon today is nothing less than a Protestant reclamation of Mary, seen most completely in Tim Perry's new book, Mary for Evangelicals(InterVarsity, 2006). For the purposes of this article, we first need to ask, "Which Mary?" A good place to begin our search for answers is Mary's Magnificat. There we will discover not so much the Blessed Virgin Mary draped in piety, but the Blessed Valorous Mary dressed for action.
If we read the Magnificat as the heartfelt release of a woman yearning for what God was—finally!—about to do in Israel and in historical context, we see it as a call to subvert unjust leaders. To turn this song into simple spirituality strips it of its meaning and leaves injustices—personified by Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great—on the throne.
Luke tells us that as soon as the angel Gabriel left Mary, she hurried down to the home of her older relative, Elizabeth, to share the Good News. Mary knew that aging Elizabeth would also, by God's grace, give birth to a special son. As New Testament scholar R. T. France has noted so poetically, "One is old and has no children; the other is young and has no husband. But both are pregnant." And both are ready to announce the Good News to the world.
The moment Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth's home, the formerly barren woman bursts into a poetic blessing for Mary. Mary echoes back with what God is doing in her womb: "My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."
Mary rejoices over what Gabriel has told her and what Elizabeth has confirmed: Her son is the Son of David, the Messiah and future king. She exults that God is about to establish justice by ushering in the kingdom that all of Israel, especially the poor, have yearned for. Yes, like Hannah of old, she is happy that she will be a mother. Yes, she is happy that God has "been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name" (Luke 1:46-49).
But her next words move beyond the personal exultation of a poor, pregnant woman. They are a declaration—on the order of Luther pinning his 95 theses to the door—from a voice at the bottom of society. It is a voice crying from the depths that God's Messiah was finally bringing justice for the poor (such as Mary, Simeon, and Anna). It is a voice proclaiming a new order—an order centered on her son, the One who would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
If we want to enter the world of the real Mary that first Christmas, listen once again to her song in the context of Herod the Great. Herod, we might recall, had assassinated members of his own family for anything that even smelled of treachery. That same Herod had taxed Israel—felt more by the poor than by anyone else—beyond its means. Hear her words in that context. They are words of subversion, words that reveal why unjust rulers might worry over their public recitation, words that tell the first Christmas story:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,from generation to generation.He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.He has brought down rulers from their thronesbut has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good thingsbut has sent the rich away empty.He has helped his servant Israel,remembering to be mercifulto Abraham and his descendants forever,just as he promised our ancestors (Luke 1:50-55).
When Mary announced that God "has brought down rulers from their thrones," anyone within earshot knew what that meant for Herod the Great, if not also for Rome. And, in noting that God "sent the rich away empty," she pointed her finger at Herod the Great with his insatiable appetite. God "has lifted up the humble" and "has filled the hungry with good things" meant that Mary and the poor of Israel would experience justice.
Had Mary sung this song—and probably she sang it more than once—in Nazareth among the peasants of Israel, they would have hoisted a toast and shouted, "It's about time! Blessed be the Lord (and Mary)!"
I recall sitting in my high school gymnasium in 1970. During an all-school assembly, African American students, wearing black, sang "Black is Beautiful" and "We Shall Overcome." Their steely protest, expressed in song, was more than a concert. It was an announcement, much like the Magnificat, that a new day had dawned and that justice was about to roll down our hallways. Mary's Magnificat, like those songs of change, can be seen as a rally cry, a revival song. It subverted the unjust reign of Herod the Great.
If you were a poor woman in the first century, if you were hungry, if you had experienced the injustices of Herod, and if you stood up in Jerusalem and announced that God would yank down the proud, the rulers, and the rich from their high places, you likely would be tried for subversion. If you were Herod or one of his ten wives or one of his many sons or daughters with (unexpressed, of course) hopes for the throne, you would conclude that Mary was a rebel, a revolutionary, a social protester. And you would be right: The real Mary was a subversive.
We can quietly repeat the Magnificat during evening prayers, or we can stand with Mary, sing it full throttle, and declare that justice ultimately will be established. The Herods of this world will be dethroned because Mary's son, the newly conceived Son of David, has gained a foothold in our world. Herod dethroned and Jesus enthroned was Mary's rallying cry. You can paint the Blessed Virgin Mary as tender and a splendid example of spirituality, or you can celebrate the Blessed Valorous Mary, who heralded a socio-religious protest against injustice in the person of her own Messiah-son.
But there is much more to Mary's song than justice for the poor. Like the rest of those who followed Jesus, Mary would learn that Jesus ushered in a new kingdom not by wearing Herod's crown but by dying on a Cross, rising from the dead, and sending the Spirit. This is first hinted at by Simeon, when Jesus was presented in the temple: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed," he said. "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."
The hope for a political Messiah, as natural as it was for a people suffering under Roman oppression, would itself be subverted by an altogether different kind of Messiah—one who would establish justice by dying and rising for the forgiveness of sins. Justice for the poor would come not through political revolution but through God's kingdom and its vision for a new society, embodied in the church.
But the larger point remains: Mary, before anyone else, sees and announces the radical nature of Jesus' mission.
Subversive Mary was also dangerous—both to the powers that be and to anyone connected with her, especially Joseph and Jesus. To use today's parlance, we might say that Mary was "radioactive." We need only think of Herod wanting to know where Jesus was born so he could murder him—or of Herod's subsequent slaughter of the innocents. But Mary seemed unfazed.
"Nice girls," Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church writes, "don't change the world." It may seem counterintuitive, but Mary was not a "nice" girl. If "nice" means meek and mild and mind-your-own-business, then Mary scared the saintly piety out of nice girls. Mary minded Herod's business and, as we are about to see, Caesar Augustus', too. (She would later mind Jesus' business, before discovering that his business was his Father's business. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.)
"And it came to pass in those days," the King James Version of Luke 2:1 reads, "that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." There is a reason why Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Luke is contrasting the gospel of Rome with the gospel of Jesus.
Rome's gospel told of the significance of Caesar Augustus for the world. Rome's history took a new turn with Augustus, the adopted son of the dictator Julius Caesar. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially declared to be a god. When Augustus seized power, he was deemed a savior because he ended bitter civil wars and created the peace of Rome (pax Romana). The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a "son of [a] god," saved Rome by bringing peace to the world.
Luke's Christmas story, told largely through the eyes of Mary, sets the birth of Christ in the context of the gospel of Rome. Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome's gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world.
Gabriel tells Mary that the "holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Nine months later, angels tell the shepherds outside Bethlehem, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Jesus, the Son of God, is the Good News for his people. Furthermore, the angel says, "Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). And then we hear a chorus of angels: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14).
Caesar Augustus supposedly was a savior, a son of a god who brought good news of peace to the world. Luke tells his readers that Jesus is the real Son of God, the Savior, who brings Good News of peace to the world. Not only do we have a tale of two Marys; we have a tale of two kings. Who, we are led to ask, will be the king? As with the Magnificat, so with Luke's story: Augustus dethroned, Jesus enthroned!
Mary in the Middle
Mary was in the middle of both of the angelic announcements. Gabriel appeared to Mary and, when the angels spoke to the shepherds, the shepherds reported their Good News to Mary and Joseph. Mary had a dangerous story to tell that would subvert injustice and establish justice through her son, the Messiah of Israel.
Luke says that Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). The traditional take on Mary's pondering is that she quietly reflected, perhaps in a corner when everyone else was dancing and clapping, and then humbly kept everything inside. But in Scripture, the word ponder denotes observing and thinking and then interpreting (Gen. 37:11; Dan. 7:28). The language of pondering refers to Mary's deliberating in order to comprehend the divine plan now at work.
Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story. Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be "Jesus" (Savior) and "Son of the Most High God" and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne. At the bottom of the entire history of Christology are the titles and categories given to Mary to pass on to others. God first tells her the true identity of Jesus. Thus, we first learn to see who Jesus was and is through her witness. Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that now appear in our Gospels. She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel; she alone was with Elizabeth; perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah's song; only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.
Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to reveal the injustice of slavery, or Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird revealed the insidiousness of racial hypocrisy, Mary also had a (true) story to tell about her son. She took the terms Gabriel gave her—Son of God, Savior, Messiah—and began to interpret who he was and what he was to do.
The Gospels come from many voices, and one of those was Mary's. Her voice tells us what God would do through her son to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus. Her voice tells us that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world. The real Mary, in the story rarely told, changed the world by surrendering to the angel Gabriel with three words: "May it be." And God used her to set loose the power of God, the gospel of the kingdom. This is the real Mary, and we need to reclaim her voice as our own.
Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson professor in religious studies at North Park University, Chicago. This article is adapted from The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Paraclete, 2006).